This October I celebrated my 20th anniversary of being a Christian. Well…to be honest, I didn’t really celebrate – there was no cake, decorations, princesses, or a donkey-horse hanging precariously from a tree branch. It was more like, changing diapers, chasing children, and pretending to be a donkey-horse for my five year old. So…I guess in that sense there was a donkey-horse.
This has been a difficult spiritual year for me as I have struggled to reconcile the actions of many of my brothers and sisters within evangelicalism, to what I view as a complete disregard for the gospel. It has forced me to say goodbye to old friends and welcome new ones. In one sense it has forced me to come to terms with how my theology and philosophy affect my actions in the real world. However, more significantly, I am being reminded how lonely the Christian journey can be. Standing up oftentimes means standing alone; for God is often just as near as he is far.
The first step: finding Jesus in the matrix
What if what you thought you knew about Jesus and Christianity was false? I’m not talking about minor theological opinions like predestination or free-will. I’m talking about that little image we have in our head of what it means to be a follower of Christ. What if, for example, we have much of it all turned around? Now ask yourself the probing question, how would you know if what you believed was wrong?
Think for a moment how much trust we put in Church leaders to inform what we believe. At first you might only be able to think of one or two. But really think about it. After a few minutes your list will begin to grow: pastors, books, Christian radio stations, politicians, Christian celebrities, Christian music, blogs, professors and teachers, friends, movies, news media, television, etc. The list can be very lengthy. All of these things influence what we believe about our faith and the world around us. These are called presuppositions, and we all have them. Some of our presuppositions are within our control (as illustrated by the aforementioned list). However, some of these are not. Some of the presuppositions that are generally out of our control are: gender, education, class, location, time period, etc.
Far too many Christians allow the first list of presuppositions to govern their belief. Part of the reason for this is due to the nature American Evangelicalism, which has positioned itself so closely to our country’s political and economic governance that the two are almost indistinguishable at times. Ultimately, the more an individual allows someone to dictate their beliefs the less control they have over that belief.
Why do we allow all of these presuppositions to influence us? There are two reasons that seem to capture a good majority of people. First, we are lazy. We have crammed our days full of other “things”, and we do not take the time nurture our minds. Our time must be treated as a commodity because it has value – even to God.
This contributes to, but does not completely encompass, the second reason. That is, we have bought into this idea that only certain educated people can understand scripture. This is partly the fault of the Church as it has overemphasized the intellectual aspects of the faith, and de-emphasized the spiritual parts. Pastor’s are primarily exegets indoctrinating the masses, when they should serve as our spiritual mentors teaching us how to be Christian through their example.
The inevitable result of this is religious apathy. We are only “awaken” to some type of action when we hear or see something that seems foreign to what we are used to. Something that will shock our system to pay attention. Many of us are more than willing to do what it takes to be a good parent, or to be a good employee; but few exercise the same dedication to their walk with Christ.
I have seen enlightenment, and it is NOT good.
Perhaps the most significant area of Christian compromise has been in adopting the modern absolutist worldview. The chart below illustrates how the enlightenment acts as the foundation for the modern worldview.
|Date||Period||Mode of truth|
|1650 - 1730||Low Enlightenment||Emphasis on doubt in order to dispose of religious assumptions|
|1730-1780||High Enlightenment||Emphasis on rationality/reason over superstition|
|1780-1815||Late Enlightenment||Emphasis on objectivity over subjectivity|
|1859 - ?||Modernism||Emphasis on science and methodology over speculation|
In the previous section I asked the question, how would you know if what you believed was wrong? This question is brought about by a logical contradiction that exists within the modern worldview (more precisely the absolutist worldview), which is the inherit denial of possibility. That is, in theory, the absolutist must deny the possibility that any given belief could be wrong; and therefore, in so doing, can never actually know when they are right. Of course the contradiction is inherit within the worldview, but is not necessarily practiced that way. Practically speaking, it’s not possible to completely deny that you might be wrong about any given proposition because individuals are constantly changing their beliefs (though this is primarily on a micro level). However, the practicality of the claim is clearly illustrated on a macro level.
“Law is God, say some; no God at all, says the fool,
For all we have power to see is a straight staff bent in a pool;
~ Alfred Lord Tennyson (The Higher Pantheism)
Perhaps you need no greater proof of the inherit contradiction than the denominationalism that persists within evangelicalism. Denominationalism demonstrates the compromise that modern Christians are willing to make on a macro level in order to secure the absolutism that exists within the denominations themselves.
Unfortunately, the Church has taught that this attitude is an act of faith, when in reality it is the very opposite – unbelief based on self-deception. In reality, faith should not need “evidence” to persist. In fact, much of modern evangelism has compromised the integrity of the gospel’s call from life transforming relationships to a series of arguments that can be recited on demand. We call this “apologetics”.
Almost any belief can be read into scripture. It’s my contention that much of modern evangelicalism does just that. That is, much of the evangelical’s theological presuppositions are anachronistically read into scripture. Although this is mostly done subconsciously it is the result of the evangelical’s willingness to compromise their individuality for the security that accompanies the doctrinal certainty of their denomination (or brand of Christianity). (To be fair, much of Christian liberalism performs the same anachronistic methodology. The difference is their presuppositions are cultural instead of theological.)
Some examples of Enlightenment thinking and questions we MUST ask
Modern apologetics operates under the premise that the Christian faith must provide “evidence” in order to justify specific beliefs. This is most commonly illustrated through the longstanding debate between evangelicals and atheists or the evangelical worldview and the scientific worldview regarding the existence of God (although these days creationism versus evolution is quickly overtaking it).
The very fact that evangelicals find the need to justify their beliefs to the outside world is a great example of the capitulation they have already made. That is, the very premise of apologetics assumes the secular version of truth at the outset. You can see the absurdity of this thinking through asking a simple question: “how do you prove the existence of a metaphysical God to a physicalist?” Answer: you can’t. But this doesn’t just apply to the existence of God, but the whole Christian faith. Since the majority of the Christian faith is a result of one’s personal experience with God, how can you prove such a subjective metaphysical experience to an objective physicalist? Answer: you can’t. So, why should we assume you can?
Instead, may I suggest a radical idea: convincing people of the truth of Christ can only be accomplished through the time and investment we make in the relationships we build. There is NO argument against doing good!
Systematic Theology (ST):
To most Christian’s ST is just theology. The designation of “systematic” is an academic one – but it’s an important one because it is how the majority of all theologians construct theology (and by extension have influenced those in the list we constructed at the beginning).
ST was not the conventional method until the late 1800’s (though it has periodically shown up throughout the whole enlightenment period). It is not a coincidence that its emergence coincides with modernism. This is because ST is a modern (scientific) approach to “doing theology”. In fact, ST has not just become the conventional way of doing theology, but the exclusive way. Any other method of doing theology is usually rejected.
ST operates under the premise that propositions can be extracted from larger narratives to communicate the truth associated with said narrative. Moreover, these propositions can be logically organized into a way that constructs a “metanarrative” (or larger story).
Why the question is not glaringly obvious I will never know, but we must ask it anyway: why do we need to tear apart the narrative in order to construct another narrative? Why is not the first narrative sufficient? Secondly, how is constructing the new narrative not changing the original?
What all of this demonstrates is that we have created a myriad of rules that must be followed in order for scripture and/or God to speak to us. If this seems a little backwards to you, you are not alone – it does me too.
If we truly want God to speak to us through scripture we cannot confine it to our own standards. We should let scripture speak to us on its own terms, not ours. Unfortunately, this oftentimes creates a messy theology, uncertainty at times, and doubt on occasion. However, it also creates a richer more authentically dynamic relationship with God.
Truth, the Word, and Scripture:
ST is based on an assumption that truth is absolute and unchanging. The reason for this assumption has to do with a faulty view of truth as it relates to God and his relationship to scripture. The line of reasoning goes: if God is absolute unchanging truth, then his Word must also be absolute and unchanging.
Even in this brief explanation we have numerous assumptions to deal with. First, this explanation assumes that humans have the ability to understand truth as God does. Our ability to ascertain absolute truth is never considered in the explanation. Second, it limits God’s “Word” to the bible, but fails to take into account all of the ways God’s Word is made known to us (nature, the Holy Spirit, prayer, worship, etc.). There is nothing, in all of these ways that God communicates to us that indicates “theology” should be constructed using the modern presumption of absolutism? In fact, just the opposite. If anything, what all of these demonstrate is how much our subjective experience of God and his Word influence our lives.
My question is simple: if God is absolute and we experience him subjectively, then why can’t truth be subjective? All subjectivity refers to is the position of a subject relative to the object under consideration.
Conclusion: becoming UNenlightened is returning us to biblical thinking
The biggest temptation for the evangelical constructing a biblical theology is capitulation to modern scientific thinking. The connection that most evangelicals fail to make is that “modernism” is the same thing as “scientific thinking”. In other words, if you subscribe to the modern worldview and you are creating theology, you are doing so scientifically.
However, this way of thinking has come at a significant cost. Namely, it has forced us to compromise some of the most important aspects of our humanity; namely, our subjectivity. It has also forced us to justify theological beliefs that have no real biblical foundation. Ultimately, the enlightenment created a false sense of certainty for humanity regarding truth and knowledge. It makes promises it cannot possibly deliver. As a result, a chasm has been created between what is true and what is real; what we think the bible teaches and what the bible actually teaches.